Simeon and Dimitar have been together for 13 years, and yet their love is not legally recognized in Bulgaria. Together, they founded GLAS Foundation, an NGO that strives to fight for LGBT+ rights in Bulgaria, in hopes that one day it will.
Answers - S : Simeon / D: Dimitar
When did you realise you were gay?
S: I realised I was gay at a really young age, probably when I was five and started playing with dolls. I remember my father was insisting on me playing with soldiers and he even bought me dinosaurs to see if that would stop me from playing with dolls. He was happy about his gift and let me unwrap it. When he came back later that day, there I was dressing up the dinosaurs in little skirts that I had borrowed from my dolls, and made sure to put lipstick on them too. At that point my dad gave up and probably knew his plan had utterly failed. (laughs).
D: I also knew I was attracted to men quite early in life. However, I did have a two year relationship with a girl in my school. The word ‘gay’ wasn’t very popular when I was young and I didn’t want to be associated to the general idea of what being gay was.
I soon confirmed that I was gay in my 20s.
When and where did you two meet?
S: We met thirteen years ago at the gym. We were both using the same model of Nokia phone and I picked up his phone by mistake. I felt embarrassed when I realised it wasn’t mine. He looked at me and I apologised and said that I thought it was mine.
After we were done at the gym he came back to the changing room and he told me:
- “You know, I’m going to be fine if you pick my phone much more often”.
At that point I definitely understood that there was a special connection between us and that’s when we started dating.
What traits do you like most about your significant other?
D: What I absolutely love about Simeon is that he’s incredibly creative, optimistic, funny, lovable and positive. I love him for being so optimistic all the time otherwise I would be much more grumpy. He’s definitely the best partner you could ever have.
S: That’s true. (laughs)
S: The thing I love about Dimitar is that he makes me a better person. He’s the reason why I improve. And without him I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today without his guidance and advice. Sometimes what he says can offend me but I know it’s always for my good. I know I can count on him. On top of that he’s a great cook, a perfect travel companion and the list goes on
Do your families approve of your relationship?
D: No. The biggest obstacle I’ve had so far as an openly gay man in Bulgaria was telling my parents. They’re not very supportive. In a way, I understand them because Bulgaria is a very conservative and backward society. I’m trying to do my best for them to understand and see how happy I am and that being gay isn’t wrong, nor is it a choice.
I’ve been with Simeon for over a decade now, so obviously they’re starting to get used to the idea but they haven’t really accepted it yet. Of course they met Simeon a couple of times, my mom more than my dad but I wish for it to be a more consistent relationship than what it is now. Hopefully it will happen one day.
S: Yes ! My mum has always been very accepting and my father unfortunately passed away eleven years ago so I couldn’t come out to him. But my mother told me that they had always known about me being gay and that they were both fine with it. I also have a brother who is very accepting of us and even lived with us for a couple of years. He really loves Dimitar and so does my mum. We’re all close as a family.
However, sometimes I feel guilty because my mum lives in a small town and is often a victim of homophobic slurs because of me. I want to protect her and it’s painful to see that she is a victim of my decision to be an openly gay activist. It’s my fight, not hers. I really admire her bravery and am incredibly grateful for having such a loving and supportive mother. I admire how brave she is to speak up to defend me. I tell her that whenever it happens, to simply answer that her son is happy.
Also, two years ago, my grandma saw me on TV explaining that I’m gay and why it’s important to fight for our rights. So far I had been hiding it from her because she is seventy-five and I didn’t think she would accept it. It turns out that she is very supportive and I couldn’t be happier.
Are you open about your relationship?
D: Yes we are openly gay and so far it has been OK. You can live in a gay relationship in Sofia and especially if you have your own bubble of friends and work related things.
However I know that it’s much harder elsewhere especially in the countryside and in small towns. As a result, gay people are moving from small towns to big towns to Sofia and they eventually leave the country.
Do you hold hands in public?
D: No, we don’t hold hands on the street but it’s a personal decision because we’ve been raised this way. In fact there are many straight couples who do not hold hands in Bulgaria. I guess it’s because showing affection in Bulgaria is a sign of weakness and showing affection on the street whether gay or straight is not very well perceived.
S: If we walk hand in hand on the street it’s going to be more of a demonstration and I just don’t want to do it. We have other ways of making change happen. There are much more efficient ways to ignite change, I think.
Do you think Bulgaria is becoming more accepting of LGBT people?
D: Bulgaria is starting to open up and I believe that the change is inevitable. The young generation is stepping up very quickly and we hope that the government will follow.
Sofia is a completely different city than it was ten years ago. I think it’s thanks to young people but also to the influence of foreigners and both help this city evolve and open up. Sofia is getting more and more cosmopolitan and we have many affordable flights which encourages people to go abroad and see the world differently learning from diverse cultures.
We’ve been a very closed society for a long time, during the communist regime and even afterward that. So I definitely think Sofia and Bulgaria are changing for good but it takes time and efforts. It will not happen overnight and it will not happen without more support.
S: I agree but on the other hand, there has been a rise in nationalism and a rise in people who are really advocating for traditional Bulgarian values in the last two or three years, and they consider that being gay is out of their point of view for the world. People are becoming more aggressive and they use LGBT people as scapegoats. They really feel they should vocally use hate speech and target us to get their anger out.
So I would say that the LGBT community is growing and we are getting support from international partners and from the EU but at the same time we’re taking steps back because of this rise of nationalism and traditional values.
For example, we’ve organised pride for twelve years in a row and we still have to explain why we organise pride. So instead of talking about changing the criminal code, adoption rights, instead of talking about other thing, the conversation is going nowhere.
D: We are getting more visible, they are shouting louder. This is not necessarily a bad sign.
You started Glass Foundation to create a better and safer environment for LGBT people in Bulgaria. Can you tell us more about it?
S: Six years ago we started the first LGBT online community called huge.bg. It’s entirely in Bulgarian and at the beginning it was a lot of LGBT news from around the world that we were basically translating. But we quickly realised that there was so much going on in Bulgaria and that we could use this tool for those who were living in small towns and in the countryside and felt disconnected.
So we started with huge.bg and a year later we decided to register for GLAS which stands for Gays and Lesbians Accepted in Society and in Bulgarian it also means ‘voice’.
It was a hurdle back then even registering the foundation. It’s usually a simple process: you file some documents, state what the organisation is doing and then the court gives you authorization to register or not. But we got a refusal from the court on the ground that LGBT are already well accepted in society and that helping parents with LGBT kids is something that should stay within the family circle and shouldn’t be discussed in public. The judge basically said GLAS didn’t need to exist and that Bulgaria was already a very accepting society.
We persevered and had to go through a lot of steps but finally managed to register GLAS.
Our first goal was to fight hate crimes based on sexual orientations, gender, gender expression. We then got our first grant from a foundation which allowed us to collect data on homophobic hate crimes to realize how unacceptable the situation was.
Because we both come from a professional background of PR, events management, working with media it was very easy to infuse all of that into our work as activists. We’ve become quite professional in awareness raising campaigns and doing campaigns on different occasions such as organising Sofia Pride.
Today GLAS foundation has really grown, and we have many volunteers who are working with us, paid staff, and we have created many partnerships with different people and organisations.
We’re really excited that last year, together with three other LGBT organisations, we managed to open the first physical center called Rainbow Hub, here in Sofia.
It’s really empowering to have that physical space in Sofia where we’re helping each other and offering a safe space for diversity.
Have you had any issues with the work you’ve done?
S: Of course we’ve had issues throughout the years and for example the last one was last December when we launched a campaign with billboards throughout Bulgaria. We put up ten billboards and one was violated in Varna which is the second biggest city. It was targeted by nationalists, supporters of traditional values and neither the municipality nor any public institution undertook any action. So there have been issues, and there have been attacks but I believe that it’s a sign that we’re getting stronger and more visible.
Do you feel supported by the government?
S: Unfortunately not. Ever since we created the foundation there has been a lack of support from the government, from government officials, from the Presidential office, you name it. There is support from the Ombudsman office for example or from different NGOs but it’s really a crucial point to get even one politician, just one, who is courageous enough to speak up to support LGBT rights, to support minority rights.
And that’s a crucial point because in Greece for example the government introduced civil partnerships by cooperating with NGOS. You have to take into consideration that Greece is a religious society and yet it was made possible. So what is Bulgaria waiting for? We need support from the government and we need changes in the legislation.
D: The reason why the government is not supportive is because they fear losing elections and they consider that the LGBT community is too insignificant, and that they shouldn’t touch it. When in fact I believe that supporting LGBT rights could send a much stronger message of what kind of political party or leader you are because it goes hand in hand with so many other things.
What are your hopes for LGBT people in Bulgaria in the upcoming years?
S: My hope for Bulgaria is that LGBT kids will feel empowered and safe to come out to their families and that parents won’t reject them, throw them out of their houses, on the streets and from their hearts. I also hope there will be changes in the legislation, civil partnerships, adoption rights, and so forth. But my real hope is for people to be less homophobic. Whatever we do in the time that we have given to us, we’ll make that change happen. We don’t want 70% of the population against us. People must know that we are basically human beings and that we haven’t decided to be gay. We are born this way and they should accept it.
D: I really want to grow old in Bulgaria in a very different society than what it is now. I think society is moving ahead and my hope is that the government is going to follow as soon as they realise that this change is inevitable and they have to embrace it instead of fighting it.